is dealt blow in Venezuela
Election board rejects petition for
referendum to oust Chávez
Workers and peasants press
their struggles for jobs and land
Supporters of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez celebrate outside September 12 National Elections Council meeting, where body rejected petition initiated by big business, and backed by Washington, demanding referendum to oust Chávez.
BY ARGIRIS MALAPANIS
The campaign by the pro-imperialist opposition to oust Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez from power has been dealt another blow. On September 12 the countrys National Elections Council threw out a petition with more than 3 million signatures, which opposition forces gathered the first half of this year, demanding a referendum to recall the president.
At the same time, land takeovers and distribution of land to peasants who have none have accelerated this year, according to a number of Venezuelan farmers and unionists interviewed by the Militant in mid-September. Thousands of families now have titles to 1.2 million hectares [3 million acres] of land, said Angel Sarmiento, a peasant in San Carlos, Cojedes state, September 14. Yhonny García and others interviewed said that dozens of factories the owners shut down are now occupied and being operated by the workersa new development since the beginning of this year. García, a unionist in Maracaibo, Venezuelas second-largest city and capital of Zulia, the countrys top oil producing state, spoke to the Militant September 16.
The recall petition drive, the third attempt to oust Chávez, was spearheaded by the opposition coalition Coordinadora Democrática (Democratic Coordination). Fedecámarasthe countrys main employ ers associationhas been at the center of this campaign. These are the same forces that carried out an unsuccessful coup to topple the Chávez government in April 2002. They also organized a two-month bosses strike last December and January, which temporarily crippled the countrys economy, especially the oil industry. Both times massive mobilizations by working people pushed back the coup plotters, who have enjoyed Washingtons tacit or explicit support.
Thousands of Chávez supporters celebrated the election boards ruling in downtown Caracas, the countrys capital, September 12. National Elections Council president Francisco Carrasquero said the decision was made on the grounds that the signatures were gathered before the midpoint of Chávezs term, an election law violation.
Opposition leaders vowed to start a new petition campaign October 5. We are going to sign again for the millions of Venezuelans…who live in insecurity, said Enrique Mendoza, the governor of Miranda state and the main leader of the Coordinadora Democrática (CD). Mendoza is also a former leader of COPEI, a Social Christian party that alternated in the government for decades with the social-democratic Democratic Action, the other main capitalist party, until Chávez was elected in 1998.
In numerous telephone interviews, however, Venezuelans from various walks of life told the Militant that Mendozas defiant statements are simply cries of desperation. The oppositions attempts this year to get rid of the president by legal means have basically hit a dead end, said Antonio Aguillón, a unionist in Caracas. Aguillón said the countrys constitution mandates that a request for a recall referendum can only be made once during a presidents term. Its virtually precluded now that another referendum effort will succeed in the next three years, he said.
The relative weakness of the CD recall referendum campaign was indicated by the size of the demonstrations the two sides organized recently. While the big-business media claimed a mass turnout, About 30,000 people showed up for the opposition rally August 20, the day the referendum petition was filed with the National Elections Council, said Aguillón, who was on the scene. Over the past year, the CD had often mobilized more than half a million people for anti-Chavez rallies. Other Venezuelan reporters the Militant contacted put the crowd at the August 20 action at 15,000 people.
In contrast, hundreds of thousands turned out for an August 23 march in Caracas to mark three years of the Chávez presidency and denounce the demand for a recall.
Chávez was elected president in 1998 and again two years later with wide popular support against the traditional capitalist parties. Private property in the means of production has remained largely intact under his administration, with economic power still firmly in the hands of the countrys wealthiest families. Chávezs nationalist regime, however, has increasingly come into conflict with the majority of Venezuelas capitalist class. The clash turned into a collision in the fall of 2001. At that time, the government passed legislation that, if implemented, would cut into the prerogatives of finance capital. These measures include an agrarian reform law, protections for working fishermen from overfishing by large commercial companies, and the allocation of state funds for cheap housing and other social programs. The new administration has also drawn the ire of Washington and the local bourgeoisie for cultivating closer political and economic ties with revolutionary Cuba.
Deep economic crisis
Venezuela faces a deep economic crisis due to the capitalist economic depression throughout Latin America, and similar conditions around the world. This situation was exacerbated by the bosses strike that ended February 4. Unemployment is at 18 percent now, according to government statistics and other reports. The countrys Gross Domestic Product (GDP) shrank 18 percent the first half of 2003, compared with the same period a year earlier. In the first six months of this year, Venezuelas imports also plummeted by half.
There are some signs of a recovery, though, stated Antonio Aguillón. Projections now indicate that on average the GDP will fall 6 percent by the end of the year, a third of the drop in the first half. Aguillón and others pointed to the recovery in oil production as the most important factor.
Venezuela is the worlds fifth-largest petroleum producer. Oil production by Petróleos de Venezuela (PdVSA), the state-owned monopoly, is now up to 3.2 million barrels per day (bpd), the same level as a year ago. It fell last December, at the high point of the employers lockout, to 250,000 bpd. In the aftermath of the bosses strike, the government fired 18,000 of PdVSAs 30,000 employees. The majority of those dismissed, more than 10,000, were administrative and managerial personnel. The government replaced the companys management virtually in its entirety. The big majority of oil workers and other working people who mobilized to minimize sabotage and get the pumps and refineries going again are now more confident they can produce without the escuálidos, said Yhonny García, using a derisive termliterally the squalid onesused widely in Venezuela to describe the pro-imperialist opposition.
Workers occupy dozens of plants
García and others said working people across the country are now more self-confident and have intensified their struggles for jobs and for better living and working conditions, despite the difficult economic situation. There are now about 45 privately owned plants that workers occupy across the country, García pointed out. Factory takeovers began in January, he said, as working people battled to defeat the bosses lockout.
Some of the largest companies that workers took over after the owners shut them down and refused to reopen them include the Constructora Nacional de Válvulas (CNV), which produces valves for the oil industry, and Venepal, the Venezuela Paper company. Some 10,000 people work in the Venepal complex in the state of Carabobo, the countrys industrial heartland. The CNV plant in the state of Miranda employs 5,000 workers. Its owner, who was once president of PdVSA during the reign of COPEI and Democratic Action, according to García, has gone to court demanding the workers be evicted. Mobilizations around the plant by other unionists and working people from nearby communities have ensured that CNV workers maintain control of the production facility so far, García said.
Up to now, the government has not tried to evict workers in any of these plants, García stated. In some cases, the National Guard has been sent to occupied plants for security and sometimes to help with transportation of goods in and out of the factories.
Some in the labor movement now call on trade unions to take the initiative to expand the occupations. Workers should take control of all shut-down factories nationwide, said Cruz Camacaro in a June 11 interview with Aporrea, an Internet publication in Venezuela. Camacaro is the president of Sintra-Insemosa, the union organizing workers at SEMOSA, a meat-processing company in the state of Lara. Management shut down the plant during the nationwide bosses lockout last December. On February 4, the workers reopened the plant and started production. The owners then fired the unionists and succeeded in stopping production by blocking access to raw materials. Workers have been fighting since then to get their jobs back.
In other cases, workers are pressing the government directly to take action to reopen state-owned plants that closed due to the economic crisis. At a large tube factory in the state of Guyana, the workers have been organizing protest meetings recently to demand that the government give them aid needed to restart the plant, García said. The company went bankrupt a few years ago.
Struggles by peasants, fishermen
Peasants and other exploited producers are also taking action to press their demands.
We are back at Palomita, said Angel Sarmiento, who farms outside San Carlos, in the largely agricultural Cojedes state. He was referring to a land occupation by 400 peasant families in La Palomita, about five miles south of San Carlos. In early 2001, these peasants took over half of a 12,000-acre farm used mainly for cattle grazing by Compania Inglesa (English Company), one of Venezuelas largest landowners. Sarmiento took Militant reporters to Palomita in July 2002. At that time, the farmers were producing but had a hard time making ends meet. They could get no credit from the banks because they had no title to the land they tilled. In January of this year, National Guard troops kicked out the peasants. The evicted families and their supporters then occupied the local offices of the National Land Institute (INT) and organized a delegation to visit Chávez in Caracas, demanding they be allowed to return.
Two months ago, we succeeded, Sarmiento said. These peasants are back on the land. They also have agricultural certificates and can get credit. These certificates are issued by INT in lieu of land titles in cases still in dispute.
Similar struggles are taking place elsewhere. While distribution of titles to landless peasants has been relatively slow in Cojedes, it has accelerated in other states, Sarmiento stated, especially in Barinas and Zulia. Under pressure from rural toilers, the government has distributed more than 2 million acres of land this year alone, he said.
Small fishermen benefited from a 2001 law excluding large commercial firms from fishing near coastal waters. They have now focused their fight on implementing provisions of the Law on Fishing and Aquaculture that grant them the right to get credits to establish cooperatives and market their catch directly, avoiding the robbery of middlemen. According to a September 15 report by Venezuelan journalist Miriam Carolina Pérez, the state of Nueva Esparta has just granted such a credit of 300 million bolivars ($187,000) to 100 fishing families in the town of Parlomar.
Elsewhere, however, independent fishermen say they are not even close to getting credits, even after repeated protests. Weve had a cooperative for three years, said Tomás Rodríguez, a fisherman in Cumaná, the capital of Sucre state, 300 miles east of Caracas, in a September 14 telephone interview. We keep demanding the credit due, as the law says, and we see nothing. Well be going back to Caracas this year to protest.
A follow-up article in next weeks issue will report on Plan Barrio Adentroa project through which 1,000 Cuban doctors have volunteered to serve in some of the poorest neighborhoods of Caracas and elsewhere in Venezuelaand Mission Robinson, the governments literacy campaign launched this year with assistance from Cuba. That article will also examine Washingtons course to undermine and eventually overthrow the Chávez regime.